Eighty groups have called on the University of Massachusetts and its chancellor, Kumble Subbaswamy, to rescind university sponsorship of an upcoming political event that the groups are concerned will "incite animosity towards supporters of Israel, including Jewish and pro-Israel students" on the campus.
The May 4 event, "Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech, and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights," which will see several vehemently anti-Israel figures address the event's audience.
Speakers will include Pink Floyd musician and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions activist Roger Waters, who has been embroiled in several antisemitic-related scandals; Linda Sarsour, the Palestinian-American co-founder of the Women's March and who has ties with antisemitic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan; and Marc Lamont Hill, who was recently fired from CNN for his remarks at the UN in which he called for "a free Palestine from the river to the sea" – the same language used by Hamas and other extremists, and alludes to the State of Israel's destruction.
The event is being organized by NGO Media Education Foundation (MEF), whose director is Sut Jhally. Jhally is also chair of the UMass Department of Communication, which is co-sponsoring the event along with the UMass Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and the Resistance Studies Initiative UMass.
The event will include a panel and a discussion of "recent attacks on Rep. Ilhan Omar and other progressives who have spoken out against Israel's 50-year military occupation of Palestinian land and criticized pro-Israel pressure groups for conflating legitimate criticism of Israeli government policies with 'antisemitism.'"
In the letter to the university chancellor, the 80 groups, which include the AMCHA Initiative – which initiated the letter, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, B'nai B'rith International, Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors, called on the academic institution to "rescind all named university sponsorship of this event and ensure that no academic unit or other university entity is connected to this event in any way; [and to] provide us with assurances, highlighting relevant university policies and procedures, that UMass faculty will not be permitted to use their academic position or the university's name or resources to promote a personal, political agenda that compromises the university's academic mission and imperils the safety and well-being of UMass students."
The groups highlighted that according to the event's own press release, "this is not an educational event but a political rally."
"Rather than aiming to promote an understanding of a highly contentious and polarizing issue by including speakers with a variety of perspectives, this event includes speakers with only one extremely partisan perspective and clearly aims to promote a political cause and encourage political action," the groups stated in the letter. "As a private citizen and director of an NGO, Jhally has the right to express these views publicly, just as his NGO has the right to rent space from UMass for the purpose of expressing such views."
"However, we believe that Jhally is engaging in an unacceptable conflict of interest when he exploits his position as a UMass professor and department chair and the university's name to promote his own personal animosity towards Israel and its supporters," it added.
Following the letter, the AMCHA Initiative, a watchdog that seeks to investigate, document, educate and combat antisemitism on US university campuses, said that this event "featured speakers include Roger Waters, Linda Sarsour, and Marc Lamont Hill, outspoken anti-Israel activists who have engaged in antisemitic expressions including charges that Jewish Americans are more loyal to Israel than America, calls for the elimination of the Jewish state, comparisons of Israelis to Nazis, and other false and defamatory accusations about Israel and Israel's supporters that draw on classic antisemitic tropes, as defined by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism."
AMCHA Initiative director Tammi Rossman-Benjamin told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that the issue was not about the event being hosted at the university, but rather it was about "the academic legitimacy of antisemitism."
"This is going to be a horrible event, this is not about Israel, it's going to be about those who support Israel – pro-Israel students on campus, and Jewish students who don't even have an opinion on the matter but just because they are Jewish, are going to be victimized," she said, adding that there are major concerns the event will inflate antisemitism on the campus.
"There is no way this won't fuel antisemitism – this event is going to be discussing antisemitism, it's going to be defending [Congresswoman] Ilhan Omar's comments, and [discussing her comment] about the [pro-]Israel lobby," she said. "To allow this to happen on campus, for the university to give this legitimacy and academic legitimacy, especially in the climate of political hatred that we live in, can only fuel hatred and antisemitism."
Rossman-Benjamin said that this is not a new thing, that "this is happening all over the place. There were 60 similar events last year, however none were quite as egregious, they were clearly anti-Israel and at least a dozen were promoting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [movement]... This is happening more and more and it's being legitimized in the government," she emphasized. "The basic social structures always protected Jews and pro-Israel Jews."
Rossman-Benjamin made it clear that this call is not for the event to be canceled because everyone has the right to freedom of speech and is protected by the First Amendment, but for the university to distance itself from it.
"It's most important to stress that we're not calling on the event to be canceled, we are calling on the university not to be affiliated with the event," Rossman-Benjamin said. "The university can rent space to the group, but if you have departments endorsing this," it's a major problem."
The UMass chancellor claimed to have penned a response back to the groups that was attained and published by The Jewish Journal, however, Rossman-Benjamin said she never received such a letter.